Environmental/Analytical Chemistry Highlights from SETAC-NA
Charles S. Wong, University of Winnipeg
This year’s SETAC North America meeting had a wide variety of high-quality sessions in the Environmental or Analytical Chemistry track of programmed themes throughout all four days of scientific sessions. Topics covered two major areas: advances and improvements in analytical chemical measurement, and elucidating occurrence and fate processes of chemicals. With something like 16 sessions with both platform and poster components, two platform-only sessions, and eight poster-only sessions in this track, there was plenty to keep analytical environmental chemists engaged throughout the conference!
The many excellent presentations in environmental and analytical chemistry highlighted some of the cutting-edge research that is expanding our horizons in measuring chemicals of environmental concern (both new and old), and in characterizing their environmental presence (or lack thereof) and fate. This is a necessary step in understanding environmental exposure and therefore potential effects on human and ecosystem health. The understanding of new and better ways to measure environmentally relevant chemicals is fundamental to SETAC’s mission to support the development of principles and practices for protection, enhancement, and management of sustainable environmental quality and ecosystem integrity. After all, there’s no end to the number and types of chemicals that are of environmental concern, at least potentially. If we can’t figure out how to measure what’s out there, how can we possibly obtain or understand data to characterize environmental fate and toxicity?
The large number of sessions in this track makes it impossible for one person to see and experience everything there is to offer, so I’ll only be able to discuss a fraction of what was presented.
In terms of new analytical methodology, there were many papers scattered throughout the various sessions in this track during the conference. There were also sessions dedicated specifically to this topic, such as Advancement in Environmental Analytical Chemistry chaired by Ken Sajwan and Senthil Kurunthachalam, and Carl Zhang’s Advances in Environmental Sampling and Analysis. Both were on Thursday, opposite one another. Unfortunately, this meant that people had to pick and choose, as is inevitable at a sizeable conference such as SETAC North America. Presentations in these sessions included understanding the behavior of new passive samplers for air and water. This is a rapidly expanding area of research that can make contaminant collection and measurement much easier and more representative than traditional grab or composite sampling, if we can get a handle on understanding sampling rates and factors affecting them, particularly those affecting their variability.
Many other presentations dealt with improvements in instrumental analysis, such as ways to make liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry more effective. These ranged from multi-residue approaches to analyze dozens or even hundreds of analytes simultaneously in various matrices, to using large volume injection for analysis of polar analytes such as pharmaceuticals and personal-care products. The latter method is intended to make analysis easier by getting around matrix effects confounding quantitation, and also by simply getting around most of the time-consuming, solvent-intensive, and resource-hogging processing steps currently necessary. Better analysis leads to more reliable and accurate data. Shortcomings, at least potential ones, in existing approaches were also discussed. These ranged from potential deuterium exchange in the use of some stable-isotope labeled standards for quantitation, to data reduction in getting a handle on the massive piles of raw data that can be generated, as exemplified in Environmental Metabolomics chaired by Tim Collette and Dan Beardon and other sessions. Finally, brand new techniques were also presented on entirely new chemical classes, such as those in the first half of the Detection and Characterization of Engineered Nanomaterials session that discussed new capabilities such as interfacing field-flow fractionation with various types of spectroscopy to determine nanomaterial properties with respect to size. Such properties are poorly characterized at present, and their link with nanomaterial fate and exposure is important but also not well understood, so such measures are greatly welcomed!
Much of the work on occurrence and fate of environmental contaminants, the second major area in this track at the conference, tended to be organized along the lines of specific types of chemicals, whether they were “emerging” contaminants (e.g., nanomaterials, brominated flame retardants, perfluorinated compounds, pharmaceuticals and personal-care products), or established ones (e.g., PAHs, metals). These sessions were, by and large, an erudite collection of anything and everything having to do with the chemical class of interest―from analytical developments, as noted above, to measurement of these chemicals in various areas, to characterization of factors affecting fate processes in both laboratory and field (e.g., Diane Orihel’s discussion of the aquatic food-web fate of brominated flame retardants added to enclosures in the Experimental Lakes Area, which won her first place in the doctoral student platform awards category). Indeed, several sections were dedicated to this, such as Susan Glassmeyer’s Pharmaceuticals: Fate and Transport session. A great deal of fantastic work was presented in these sessions, along multiple and independent approaches. For example, the same session that had Orihel’s talk also had a nice talk on polybromated diphenyl ether accumulation and transformation in large-scale mesocosms, as well as modeling work to describe long-term trends in such chemicals under an assortment of “what if” scenarios. I’m glad to see that SETAC has been promoting this work through such means as special issues of ET&C, both actual ones (e.g., pharmaceuticals and associated research needs, ET&C volume 28 issue 19, December 2009), as well as virtual, as recently done for oil spills. This is one way in which SETAC can promote more and better science on environmental analytical chemistry in its meetings.
I also think that one area in which SETAC can help catalyze the growth of environmental and analytical chemistry is by organizing sessions that help integrate the new science that’s done across various chemical classes together. It’s understandable that sessions clump naturally towards specific chemical classes: people like to learn about their specific research interests. But a great deal of insight can be found in discoveries in other classes. For example, the procedures that are detailed in new instrumental analyses are valid not only for the specific chemicals being studied, but for others as well. Promotion of such by SETAC and SETAC attendees would be laudable.
That having been said, I think that significant progress in that direction is being made. Aside from sessions along such lines, such as the Emerging Contaminants: Analysis, Environmental Fate, Bioaccumulation in Non-Target Organisms one organized by Carin Huset, Melissa Schulz, and Chris Higgins, I was quite impressed with the extent of finding analytical and environmental chemistry in many sessions, not just those in that specific track. For example, Don Mackay gave a wonderful talk on multimedia indoor air modeling of volatile organic chemicals in the modeling session he and Tom McKone organized, in the Aquatic Toxicology and Ecology track. Bryan Brooks summarized challenges in understanding effects of pharmaceuticals to aquatic organisms in the Ecological Risk Assessment track, which included many advances in analytical environmental chemistry to drive the necessary toxicity work. It’s heartening to see that multidisciplinary approaches are well represented at SETAC, and that analytical and environmental chemistry is an accepted and integral part of what SETAC does.
I’d like to close this synopsis with some personal observations. First, the quality and quantity of environmental chemistry sessions at SETAC North America have improved considerably over the years. When I first started going to SETAC meetings in 1997, there were only a handful of sessions throughout the entire conference. Complaints from environmental chemists were rampant. Now, as noted, there’s more than any one person can take in! As inaugural chair of SETAC’s new Chemistry Advisory Group, I’m glad to see chemists and those interested in environmental chemistry take the initiative to organize these many wonderful sessions, and hope to be able to serve the SETAC community to promote this further. I must also note that it’s not easy for me to admit that I’m now far enough along, career-wise, to have been invited to write this synopsis as a senior SETAC member, rather than as a junior one! Nonetheless, I look forward to many bigger and better things to come for environmental and analytical chemistry at future SETAC North America meetings.
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